REVIEW: Instant Temptation by Jill Shalvis
Dear Ms. Shalvis:
I discovered your books when Smart Bitch Sarah commented somewhere about how much she liked Instant Attraction. When she told me that the book was set in the Sierra Nevada I was eager to read it, because I happen to love the area and had not read any contemporary Romance novels set there. From the beginning of Cam and Katie's story I knew I was going to be hooked, and boy, has that proven true. Instant Temptation, the third book in the series, takes up the case of the eldest Wilder brother, TJ, who has seemed the most impervious to love and commitment, and Harley Stephens, the town's tow-truck driver/wildlife researcher who has harbored a crush on the itinerant TJ since high school. Like the other Wilder books, Instant Temptation is a smart, character-driven Romance that doesn't rely on a lot of tricks to generate and resolve the romantic conflict. While not my favorite of the series, I certainly found TJ and Harley's story a satisfying adventure for the last of the Wilder brothers.
For the past few years, TJ Wilder has been content to guide the long trips in Alaska and elsewhere for the company he and his brothers own and run, Wilder Adventures, which keep him away from home for long stretches of time. On the occasions when he is home, though, he finds a major distraction in Harley Stephens, with whom he shares a prickly, bickering attraction, although neither will admit to the mutual draw. For TJ it's more of a desire to avoid the complications of a committed relationship. And he is certainly correct in his comprehension of Harley's complexity. What he does not realize, however, is that its source is his own past with Harley – a past of which he has no recollection. That one night, years ago, Harley lost her virginity to a drunken TJ in the back of a pick-up truck, something that has only exacerbated rather than sated her desire for him. But she knows TJ doesn't want a real relationship, that he doesn't even know they've had sex, and so she hides her desire behind studied nonchalance, a pair of work overalls, and a smart mouth.
Never mind that TJ finds that mouth – and everything else about Harley – incredibly sexy. And when they literally collide in the local bar, TJ realizes he can no longer ignore the powerful chemistry between them:
"You telling me you didn't feel that?" he asked her back, having no idea why he pushed, or why he cared. Since when did he push for anything, especially something as nameless and intangible as what he might want from Harley Stephens?
"The thing that happens when we get too close."
She froze, then slowly turned to face him. "It's Indian summer, TJ. We're all a little overheated. It's natural."
"Is that right?"
"Yes." She broke eye contact, her gaze skittering away. "It's Wishful, you know. High altitude. And it's hot, it's really, really hot. It's normal to feel so…"
She bit her lower lip. "Yes."
"So is that what happens when we get too close then, Harley? You get really, really hot?"
TJ may not be in perfect touch with his own feelings for Harley, but he is relatively perceptive about what is going on with her. He recognizes that Harley looks stressed and tired, and when he does a little pressing, showing up at her house to talk to her about an upcoming wilderness trip she is planning to take, he realizes that Harley is struggling for cash. Besides helping out her divorced, "sixties throwback" parents and younger sister, Harley has taken an unpaid internship researching the local coyote population in the hope of getting a job in Colorado as a research biologist. But several cameras keeping track of the coyotes have gone down and Harley is determined to trek into Desolation Wilderness to reset them.
As much as TJ respects Harley's independence and intelligence, he cannot allow her to go to Desolation alone, not in September when she could be trapped by an unexpected snowstorm or worse. He may not be able to get her to keep the money he presses on her, but he can help her impress the people who will decide whether to award Harley the permanent research job she wants, even if she protests every step of the way:
"Are you prepared for rain?"
"I'm prepared for anything, TJ." Theoretically, anyway. "I'm also wearing my Supergirl panties. So really, you can go home."
"You're right." He scrubbed a hand down his face. "You have a way of taking care of yourself. I have no idea why I feel the need to do it for you."
"You could just stop."
He pulled off his baseball cap and shoved a hand through his hair. "It's not that easy. I … think about you."
This made her blink. "You do?"
"Well, yeah. Don't you think about me?" …
"But we're nothing to each other," she whispered.
"I don't believe that." He shook his head. "And I don't think you do, either."
Harley's real problem, of course, is that she doesn't want TJ to give up. But she knows that if she lets him get too close, she won't be able to let go, and she still hasn't gotten over the mediocre sex they had in high school. The nicer TJ is (and one of my favorite things about this series is that the Wilder brothers are all good guys despite their issues), the more irritated Harley feels. And now TJ has decided to keep drawing their attraction out into the open, Harley can practically feel her resistance melt in that notorious Wishful heat. Once they are alone in Desolation there is only the whisper thin barrier of Harley and TJ's sarcastic banter to keep them apart, and we know, even if they do not, how little distance there is between bickering and foreplay.
I have always been a fan of the friends-to-lovers trope, and Instant Temptation is especially charming because both TJ and Harley are so likeable. Both pride themselves on their independence, and while Harley may be more in touch with her loneliness, TJ is always honest with Harley about his changeable and changing feelings. He gets a kick out of the way Harley tries to downplay her attraction to him, while his competitiveness and pride make him determined to make up for his high school shortcomings. They are both good at what they do and aren’t in need of any major life or personality overhaul. These are two people we know are not going to try to hurt each other deliberately and whose main problem as a couple is not a lack of deep feelings between them:
He hugged her hard, pressing his face in her hair. "Remember how we both said that being out here on the mountain, away from all the bullshit, made us feel alive?"
She tilted her head back and looked into his warm eyes. "Yes."
His gaze searched hers, his smile slowly fading. "I'm starting to think it's not the mountain at all, that maybe it's you. You make me feel alive, Harley."
Throughout Instant Temptation, nature both facilitates the romance and acts as an illusory barrier for the couple. I say "illusory" not because it's an illusion for the reader, but rather for TJ and Harley, who each use the environment – TJ as the guide/traveler and Harley as the wilderness researcher – as an excuse to keep their relationship from moving into an emotional wilderness over which they have no real control. They both enjoy being out in nature, they both find a certain serenity away from social complications, and it is in the "wilderness" that they can more readily tap into their mutual desire and find the freedom to explore it. But they cannot easily translate the physical wildness of their attraction to a more ordered and rule-bound emotional coupling. That they care about each other deeply is pretty obvious, even to them, but doing the work and making the commitments necessary to turn that into something more is the challenge. So in the meantime they indulge their physical attraction, where their compatibility is unquestionable.
Much of Instant Temptation is occupied by an increasingly intense intimacy between TJ and Harley, with TJ discovering the true depth of his feelings for Harley and Harley becoming increasingly afraid of what she perceives to be TJ's inevitable withdrawal from any "real" relationship. A very nice twist between these two is the persistent question of who is really more commitment phobic, TJ or Harley. On the surface, TJ seems to win that contest, but Harley's continual insistence that TJ doesn't want anything more than a casual fling makes TJ wonder if she's any more prepared for a serious relationship than he is:
"You let me make love to you one night in my truck a million years ago, and it was apparently so bad that you spent the next decade avoiding me. Then I coerce you into spending time with me by following you to Desolation, where if I'm not mistaken, we had a much better than "fine' time. Yet you back off again. So the message I'm getting is that you're going to back off no matter what, and hide behind the "I'm leaving' thing. Do I have that right, Harley?"
"You are leaving!"
His eyes narrowed, dark and turbulent. "You like to throw my lack of commitment out there, but you need to be honest, at least with yourself."
She opened her mouth but he put a finger over her lips. "It's not all me," he told her. "You're holding back, too…."
Anyone who has read Slow Heat is familiar with this emotional dance (I recently recommended Instant Temptation to someone as Slow Heat, Sierra Nevada style), although there are fewer extraneous complications in this book, which means that there's more concentrated attention on TJ and Harley's individual and relationship issues. Problems with Harley's research project, along with the part-time guide work she does with TJ (he and Stone spend a good deal of time trying to recruit Harley to earn extra money working as a guide and photographer for Wilder Adventures), also provide a believable context for the relationship to develop. And I was happy to see the couples from previous books in the series thriving.
But the narrower focus of Instant Temptation did make the plotting feel a bit thin to me at times, like the high altitude air in Wishful. I found myself growing impatient with the circling, circling, circling that Harley and TJ engage in. It wasn't so much that I got frustrated with TJ and Harley; it was more that their steps toward the inevitable conclusion of their dance seemed deliberately slow, with the distraction of their physical chemistry (and their extended enjoyment of that), not distracting enough to keep it from feeling a bit like stalling the narrative velocity. Also, and this is admittedly nitpicky, I was frustrated by the characterization of a group of UC Berkeley co-eds that TJ and Harley take on a kayaking adventure as "Malibu Barbie" trust-fund sorority sisters. They were just so antithetical to the student culture of Berkeley that it undermined my engagement with the narrative a bit during that section of the novel.
Overall, though, I really liked Instant Temptation, both for TJ and Harley's story and for the way it pulled together threads from the previous books. The Wilder family is full of personality and love, and anyone who has read the whole series will likely be smiling at some of the developments in the lives of the other siblings (as well as Nick and Annie's current situation). And now that I've finished the book, I have been thinking about characters in Wishful who might be good candidates their own book – Nolan, Harley's boss, for example, or Skye, her sister. Or how about Annie and Nick's story, told from the beginning? I mean, I know the town is small, but I am just not ready to leave, which I hope expresses the enjoyment I have had in the Wilder's adventures. B.
~Janet / Robin
This is a trade paperback published by Kensington. Not part of the Agency 5.